Marcos Rodriguez already has a small chain of popular Mexican-Peruvian restaurants (Hola!), but last month he opened up a small diner along Third Street, something on par with a popular musician taking on a side project that allows him a bit more authenticity and a bit more latitude to move away from mainstream expectations. Sure, there are still tacos and burritos and the familiar Mexican fare—and, although not on the chalkboard menus, they gladly whipped up an order of chips and freshly-made guacamole. But Esta Bien! is as authentic Mexican-Salvadoran as Central Oregon has. Some dishes were entirely unfamiliar
On a recent Monday afternoon, with Third Street iced and rutted, stepping into the bustling diner was transformative. At first glance, it didn't seem too different from the recently departed Sabor a Mi, a Mexican restaurant that had occupied the same location for the past couple years. The walls are still painted turquoise, and the table set up what seems to be the exact same arrangement. But with as much Spanish being spoken by patrons as English, and with several unrecognizable dishes chalked onto the blackboard menus behind the counter, the cold Central Oregon winter felt as far away as El Salvador.
I had to ask what "pupusas" are, and another dish was described as a bean, tortilla and egg dish that sounded like a second-cousin to huevos rancheros. Open since October, Esta Bien!'s menu is delightfully simple, but also slightly obscure.
Rodriguez explains that they mainly serve Mexican dishes, but pupusas are a traditional Salvadoran dish not served elsewhere in Central Oregon. Consisting of a soft, thick corn tortilla, fried and stuffed with warm fillings, they look like pancakes and it is easy to understand why people have been eating these pockets of goodness for the past 2,000 years. The cheese papusa is filled with soft quesillo and, unlike a quesadilla, doesn't loose its fillings because it's completely enclosed by the tortilla. Portable, comforting and filling, it's an easy and inexpensive light meal or snack. The entire 30 minutes we were there, an older woman in the back kitchen stood patting down the dough and fillings into flat, round pancakes.
"I've gained seven or eight pounds since we opened," jokes Rodriguez.
The tacos are not hard-shelled, but the increasingly popular small, soft tacos, filled with basic, seasoned meats. I ordered both a pork and a beef taco, which came with a collection of sauces. The taco alone was like a small fajita, but adding a cole slaw-like dressing balanced the meat's spiciness with a cool tang, and made for a dynamic meal.
For $16, three of us ate a great lunch—and enjoyed a mini-vacation to Mexico over the lunch hour.